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PLAYTrack Conference 2017

Playful experiences – designs, characteristics and research

December 4-6th 2017, the Interacting Mind Centre (IMC) at Aarhus University is organised the first international PlayTrack Conference on the theme “Playful experiences – designs, characteristics and research”. PlayTrack is a 5-year research project at the IMC, funded by the LEGO Foundation and dedicated to exploring the questions of what play and especially playfulness mean and do for our personal performance, development and our interactions with each other.

Introduction to the Conference and the IMC approach


Pedagogy of Play: Puzzles Regarding Play’s Role in Schools

Camilla Fog (International School of Billund), and Ben Mardell and Mara Krechevsky (Project Zero)

The Pedagogy of Play (PoP) project is animated by two key ideas:

  • Play is a core resource for learning (and thus should have a central place in schools)
  • Play and school are not an easy fit (and hence the need for a pedagogy of play to help support educators in bringing more learning through play into schools)

The project is a partnership between the International School of Billund (ISB), an independent school in Denmark; Project Zero (PZ), a research organization at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and LEGO Foundation. Since 2015, ISB educators and PZ researchers have been working to understand how learning through play can have a central role in schools. In this presentation ISB principal Camilla Fog and PZ researchers Mara Krechevsky and Ben Mardell will share three puzzles from our work. 

Reed Stevens: Ethnographic studies of games and play and their relevance for design


I will argue for the value of ethnographic studies of play and games and, in turn, argue how these kinds of studies provide resources for the design of new learning experiences. Two findings of earlier studies of commercial video game play among teens and tweens provide a framework for this agenda. In this study, we found that a) video game play - that many treat as a separate world from everyday life - is in fact tangled up with everyday life in many ways, and b) when youth participate in a peer culture that values particular practices (like game play), youth find creative and productive ways to learn and teach each other.

Given the continuing controversy about the value of play and/or games for learning, the argument for ‘experience near’ studies of play and games is as strong as it was a decade ago. Play and games represent underappreciated contexts for studying a range of core phenomena including learning, cognition, collaboration, interest, and identity. And studying freely chosen experiences like games and play allows for new and different questions from those that can be asked of required, in-school learning experiences. Studies of game and play contexts also provide illuminating comparisons with these ‘same’ phenomena in more formal settings like classrooms. Commitments to ethnographic studies of games and play bring with them methodological implications, which I also will discuss.

Though I resist a priori definitions of either ‘play’ or ‘games’ in lieu of ‘experience near’, grounded studies of particular contexts and members’ definitions of these experiences, I will borrow a distinction made by Malaby (2006) between games and play. As Malaby and more recently Bogost (2016) argue, play is better construed as a ‘mode of experience’ than as an activity system whereas games are more better construed as partially bounded activity systems with rules, with most game play having irreducibly emergent and evolving qualities to be understood ethnographically. With this basic distinction between games and play, we can ask how and when games and playfulness intersect and to what ends and for whom. We can also ask a fruitful, unexplored question that is both ethnographic and developmental: how do particular contexts of activity become associated as playful—as ‘counting as’ play, for particular people? This is an intriguing question with practical import. For example, within a normative educational framework, how might or for whom might valued academic or societal pursuits (e.g. math or science) become a playful mode of experience? And what are the conditions of learning environments that encourage a sense of playfulness or so-called playful learning?

My second theme is the design implications of ethnographic studies. I will discuss two design efforts and share how ethnographically grounded understandings of games or play have been vital, novel sources of design inspiration. The first project is called FUSE Studios (https://www.fusestudio.net), an in-school learning environment inspired by findings from my (and others’) studies of gaming and informal learning. FUSE involves challenge sequences that level up like video games, challenges that are freely chosen by students, and studios evolve to be places students learn from and teach each other. The second project involves a pair of digitally-supported board games, designed for families to play together. The design of these two games draws upon cultural resources in families with the goal of helping families learn together about important issues related to energy use and sustainability and to encourage one the most challenging kinds of learning: lasting behavior change.

PEDAL symposium: Examining the role of play in infancy and childhood

Ciara Laverty, Esinam Avornyo and Behzad M. Hervai

PEDAL is the research centre for play in education, development & learning within the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Education. In this talk, PEDAL researchers present three separate studies that examine the role of play in infancy and early childhood. The first uses sensors to make sense of social play in the playground; the second develops a scale of parental playfulness, and the third examines Ghanian stakeholders’ beliefs about the role of play in children’s learning in the early years (3-5 years).


Kars Alfrink (Leapfrog): Playful Design for Workplace Change Management


Code 4 (2011, commissioned by the Tax Administration of the Netherlands) and Ripple Effect (2013, commissioned by Royal Dutch Shell) are both games for workplace change management designed and developed by Hubbub, a boutique playful design agency which operated from Utrecht, The Netherlands and Berlin, Germany between 2009 and 2015. These games are examples of how a goal-oriented serious game can be used to encourage playful appropriation of workplace infrastructure and social norms, resulting in an open-ended and creative exploration of new and innovative ways of working.

Serious game projects are usually commissioned to solve problems. Solving the problem of cultural change in a straightforward manner means viewing games as a way to persuade workers of a desired future state. They typically take videogame form, simulating the desired new way of working as determined by management. To play the game well, players need to master its system and by extension—it is assumed—learning happens.

These games can be enjoyable experiences and an improvement on previous forms of workplace learning, but in our view they decrease the possibility space of potential workplace cultural change. They diminish worker agency, and they waste the creative and innovative potential of involving them in the invention of an improved workplace culture.

We instead choose to view workplace games as an opportunity to increase the space of possibility. We resist the temptation to bake the desired new way of working into the game’s physical and digital affordances. Instead, we leave how to play well up to the players. Since these games are team-based and collaborative, players need to negotiate their way of working around the game among themselves. In addition, because the games are distributed in time—running over a number of weeks—and are playable at player discretion during the workday, players are given license to appropriate workplace infrastructure and subvert social norms towards in-game ends.

We tried to make learning tangible in various ways. Because the games at the core are web applications to which players log on with individual accounts we were able to collect data on player behavior. To guarantee privacy employers did not have direct access to game databases and only received anonymised reports. We took responsibility for player learning by facilitating coaching sessions in which they could safely reflect on their game experiences. Rounding out these efforts, we conducted surveys to gain insight into the player experience from a more qualitative and subjective perspective.

These games offer a model for a reasonably democratic and ethical way of doing game-based workplace change management. However, we would like to see efforts that further democratize their design and development—involving workers at every step. We also worry about how games can be used to create the illusion of worker influence while at the same time software is deployed throughout the workplace to limit their agency.

Our examples may be inspiring but because of these developments we feel we can’t continue this type of work without seriously reconsidering our current processes, technology stacks and business practices—and ultimately whether we should be making games at all.

Miguel Sicart: Playing and automated World


Why do we want to play in this world? In recent years, play has gained considerable cultural capital as a way of designing new interactions, new forms of engaging with the world, and more specifically, new ways of making computation more palatable. From gamification to playful design, educators and interaction designers are applying the assumed benefits of play to the creation of new forms of experiencing the world.

However, we, researchers and practitioners, are not really engaging with the larger picture of what we are doing. We are taking a rational, systems-thinking, design-thinking driven approach to solving problems. We have identified some issues as relevant and addressable from a design standpoint, and we are producing solutions without really questioning why these solutions, and what is that we are actually doing. We are bluntly solving wicked problems by turning them into playable problems. Perhaps we should think harder about what it means to have play everywhere, and particularly what it means to have play as an interface to an automated world.

It is fashionable these days to be afraid of automation. From labor concerns about disappearing jobs to the fear of an AI planet, we are witnessing a revolution that we cannot simply grasp by applying the methods and theories of the industrial world. We should be afraid of automation. Not only of the robots that will deprive factories from human jobs that require skill and expertise but not an academic education, but more of the quotidian, mundane forms of automation we are witnessing.

Let me ask you: when is the last time you went to a bank? Or you checked in at the airport counters, in front of a human? Or called to ask for a cab? We are living a silent automation revolution, one that destroys human-facing employment by turning us into robots, feeding data to the comfortable algorithms we access through our phones. This talk is about the ethical responsibility of using play to turn us into comfortable robots. These are the interfaces that we want to make playful: the banks, the taxis, dating, chatting, ordering beers, doing the groceries, … And we want to make them playful because they are essentially turning us into data points, robots performing operations that used to be meshed in a network of human to human and computational interactions.

Play has the power of creating worlds, or arranging our experience so that we find pleasures in mundanity. But that power could be misused. The veil of pleasure that play provides can hide the awful truths of automation, of disempowering us and disengaging us from the world. Playful design can be used as a trick to hide the consolidation of practices and technologies that alienate us, eliminate jobs, and limit our understanding of the complexities of the information age.

I don’t want to come across as a luddite. I think society benefits from some of these advantages. But as play designers, we should be very aware of the ways we are using play’s world-creation capacities to create universes in which machines use humans. In this presentation, I want to work through the ethical concerns of playing an automated world, but also come out on the other side with an alternative: play should not be, and cannot be, an instrument to make these automation processes easier, more pleasurable, and more detached from the world. Play should be an instrument to reclaim our automated futures, to structure and arrange these human-machine assemblages. Playful designers are facing an extreme dilemma: how can we make automated worlds more enjoyable, while still respecting and nurturing human individual and collective dignity, the importance of labor and skill, and the understanding that pleasure and fun should only be the byproducts of a robust, ethical way of being in the world, even when we play.

Michael Sailer: Gamification research: open questions and future challenges


Gamification is the new kid on the block in the area of digital learning or working environments. The basic idea of gamification is to use game design elements in a non-game context (Deterding, Dixon, Khaled & Nacke, 2011) to foster engagement, motivation, performance and learning. Gamification has been applied in different contexts including schools, universities and at workplaces. The concept has received increasing attention from practitioners, but also researchers have started to investigate gamification.

The focus of this keynote will be to address how gamification research should be advanced. An emphasis will be on outlining the future challenges which need to be overcome in order to consolidate what we know about effects of gamification and ground these in theory to derive success factors for the design of gamified environments. Examples how gamification research can be performed to meet some of the following issues will be introduced. The current state of research shows that there is a lack of theoretical foundation of many studies in the context of gamification (Hamari, Koivisto & Sarsa, 2014; Seaborn & Fels, 2015). Although researchers start applying well-established theories, or innovative new ones, within gamification research, the majority does not. Especially striking is that gamification studies are not yet designed to validate theoretical considerations empirically.

In general there is a strong need for theory guided empirical research in context of gamification. Furthermore gamification applications are often treated as uniform concept within empirical studies, while in practice, the specific designs and realizations of gamification environments are diverse. A differentiated investigation of game design elements or game mechanics within comparative research designs is needed. This differentiation has to be applied to gamification environments in practice as well as to gamification research in order to have comparisons of different instantiations or features of gamification.

Similarly to other fields of research, gamification research lacks the combined investigation of process data and outcome data. Mostly, empirical studies focus on either one. Measurement of outcome variables after a gamified intervention can provide evidence for the effectiveness of gamification environments and addresses the question if gamification works. The question how gamification works however, can only be answered properly by having a closer look at psychological and behavioral processes data. The combined investigation of process and outcome data can help to evaluate and understand the effectiveness of gamification. Finally statistical syntheses of empirical findings of gamification studies are needed to gain a comprehensive picture of gamification effects and to identify which factors contribute to a successful implementation of gamification across different contexts.


Amos Blanton: Play in Practice at the LEGO Idea Studio

The LEGO Idea Studio is an applied research and experiential learning space that’s part of the LEGO Foundation Centre for Creativity, Play, and Learning. In the studio we develop open-ended play activities, often with technology, that invite people to experience learning through play and the LEGO Idea.

We believe that the experience of play is vital to its understanding. We do not need to reduce play to its fundamental elements to understand and utilize play’s power or its benefits - just as we do not need to understand the neurological functioning of the brain in order to love and to be kind to a child. As Ofer Ravid put it in his abstract, “Many practitioners are able to recognize Play in practice and even to often succeed in forming the conditions that enable its emergence.”


What are the qualities of designed experiences that invite playfulness across different contexts?

As Ravid points out, it can be easier to inspire playfulness in actors by inviting them to try activities without “the need to create a presentable result.” I find this is also true in an educational context, such as an open-ended activity in which people are invited to invent something new with LEGO bricks. Given that we find this same quality in very different contexts, it suggests a principle that may be generalizable.

How can play facilitators create powerful invitations for people to play?

There is a need for better ways to describe facilitation strategies that invite playfulness - especially with people who do not prefer complexity or the unusual, one of the qualities of “playfulness” as described in Rene Proyer’s conference abstract. The tendency - common among many people today - to define themselves as “not creative” is one example of a barrier to playfulness. One intervention that often works well has the facilitator showing an example that is whimsical and surprising, which can sometimes distract people from their identity as a non-creative person long enough for them to begin to engage with the activity.

Another intervention that good facilitators of playful open-ended activities will sometimes try is demonstrating a willingness to make mistakes themselves. By modelling this kind of behavior, we can try to communicate to the participant in a play workshop that they are not being judged, and that the environment is safe and playful. I was reminded of this and similar techniques when reading Richard Wiehe’s piece on clowning. His statement about the role of the clown’s nose - communicating to the viewer that “You are a child again, innocent and naïve, and you’re on the playground” is not so different from what a good play facilitator tries to do when introducing a playful activity.

Ofer Ravid: Playfulness and Presence/Presentness in Contemporary Actor-Training


Theatre acting in the 21st century is based on an abundance of approaches, techniques, and styles including, for example, mainstream, realistic, Stanislavskian approaches, physical and/or psychophysical techniques, multi cultural approaches, improvisational techniques, and more.

Despite their diversity, in the large majority of acting approaches, presence (or as I termed it in previous research presentness) takes a significant place as one of the most valued principles for the contemporary actor’s practice. Similarly, playfulness is regarded a central principle in many acting techniques, mostly those that are based on improvisational activities or that lead to collaborative performance-devising processes. Various practitioners emphasize the necessity for performers to heighten both presence and playfulness beyond the mundane level and they develop different techniques and tactics to achieve this goal. I regard both presence and playfulness as inter-personal, emerging and process-based. Hence, I use the term presentness rather than presence, which is often seen as a static, personal trait.

In my presentation I expound specific actor-training approaches that attempt to heighten both playfulness and presentness and explore the relationship and interdependency between the two in practice. I suggest ways in which these two principles might affect actors’ work with fellow performers and in relation to the audience.

This presentation may include demonstrations that require some audience participation.

René Proyer: Adult playfulness as a personality trait: Its definition, structure, measurement, and malleability


While the study of play (the actual behavior) in children has generated comparatively much interest among psychologists, the personality trait (playfulness) has attracted less attention—especially, playfulness in adults is an understudied topic. It is argued that playfulness helps explaining interindividual differences in how people play (frequency, intensity, expression, etc.). As such it is an important moderator of applications based on the actual behavior. Recently, I have proposed a revised definition and structural model for adult playfulness that are aimed at overcoming some of the identified problems. The definition is:

“Playfulness is an individual differences variable that allows people to frame or reframe everyday situations in a way such that they experience them as entertaining, and/or intellectually stimulating, and/or personally interesting. Those on the high end of this dimension seek and establish situations in which they can interact playfully with others (e.g., playful teasing, shared play activities) and they are capable of using their playfulness even under difficult situations to resolve tension (e.g., in social interactions, or in work-type settings). Playfulness is also associated with a preference for complexity rather than simplicity and a preference for—and liking of—unusual activities, objects and topics, or individuals” (Proyer, 2017; p. 114).

The definition is accompanied by a structural model (the OLIW-model) that comprises four facets; namely, (a) Other-directed (O; i.e., enjoying to play with others; using ones playfulness to make social relations more interesting or to loosen up tense situations with others; enjoying good-heartedly teasing); (b) Lighthearted (L; i.e., seeing life as a game and not worrying too much about future consequences of one's own behavior; liking to improvise; reserving time in the daily routine for play); (c) Intellectual (I; i.e., liking to play with ideas and thoughts; liking to think about and solving problems; thinking about and trying different solutions for a problem; preferring complexity over simplicity); and (d) Whimsical (W; i.e., finding amusement in grotesque and strange situations; having the reputation of liking odd things or activities; finding it easy to find something amusing for oneself and/or others in everyday life situations and interactions).

I will highlight current research focusing, for example, on the contribution of the four facets to relationship satisfaction; the identification of cues that are indicative of playfulness in social interactions; or playfulness at the workplace).

Recently, we have finished a pilot study for a web-based intervention targeting the four facets. In a placebo-controlled trial, we tested the effects on changes in happiness and depression of 1-week interventions for up to six months. Data are not yet fully analyzed, but are encouraging in the sense that these interventions have the potential to contribute to well-being.